The Big Secret of Self-Employment

The Big Secret of Self-Employment

This summer I ran a class at Costume College called “How to Start your Own Sewing Business”. [ETA, 2016: I now do this in partnership with Lauren Stowell of American Duchess.]

More than forty people showed up – some with an existing project to show off, some with a big idea but a lot of fear and resistance, and some who had a few miles under their belts, who wanted to know when or how to get more serious about it.

Now, I don’t have all the answers, but one of the most important things that class did was to let everyone talk to each other, and realise the small businessperson’s Big Unspoken Secret…

We’re all making it up as we go along.

However many years you have been self-employed, you will always be making it up anew, every day. That’s the awesome thing about making your own money, whether you’re Google or whether you’re just trying to make a few bucks on the side – you get to be highly creative.

And that’s why highly creative people, contrary to popular belief,  make great businesspeople.


I have thought a great deal about those people since that class ended, and all the creatives like them who kind-of-want-to-do-this but are afraid, or who put themselves out there a little but doubt that they can pull it off full time or long term – and I include in that all those of us who are in the thick of it and sometimes feel like a big fraud who will be “outed” one day.  And I keep thinking about the Big Secret.

What none of us realise is that we’re all afraid.  Every day.  But you learn to dance with the fear, and not let it control you.  Each small success builds on the last as you find that you have just a little more confidence each day with which to face tomorrow. And with that confidence, you can do something with your creative baby that’s just a little bit more bold and awesome than what you did yesterday, something that makes people’s lives better or easier and keeps your rent paid too.

Across the board, I strongly suspect that if you asked Lauren at American Duchess, or Julia at Sew Curvy, or Brayton and Amy at Legendary Costume Works, or Jennie at Sense & Sensibility Patterns, or any small business owner at all, in any field, they’d probably all agree.

We’re all tapdancing like mad out on stage, hoping that no-one notices that behind the big red curtain, there’s just a little human being who’s doing their best.  We’re all making it up as we go along.

I’d like to write more on that theme, and demystify this game for all the people out there who have ever even toyed with the idea of having a go at being their own boss – whether that’s starting a creative business, opening that Etsy store, or just making a few bucks off your blog.

And to that end, maybe I ought to pull back the curtain…


Cathy Hay (c) Tavan PhotographyNeed help making your creative life pay the rent? Here’s a quiz to help you, which will also get you onto the mailing list for group coaching and other opportunities. There’s also a regular shot of motivation and encouragement for creative souls like you at my Facebook Page, The Successful Creative.


  1. Spot on, Cathy! My late father, aviation historian par excellence, author of 59 books and thousands of magazine articles, always told me exactly what you’ve said here. When you do what you are passionate about, you always have a sneaking feeling that one day someone is going to expose you as just a hobbyist instead of a pro. We’ve all been so conditioned to see “professionals” and “experts” as people with long lists of prestigious degrees or owners of major corporations. But anyone can exhibit professionalism when she pursues her passion with intensity and a desire to constantly learn and improve.

    I love (LOVE!) seeing new “kids” jump into historical fashion, costume design, pattern making…you name it. I had so many people reach out a hand to pull me higher when I got started, and it’s a joy to do the same for other newbies now. That’s another Big Secret: We’re all in this together, and we all love to help. If you are genuine and not just out to climb over others to make a name for yourself, you WILL be helped and pushed and promoted by the rest of us.

    Yes, there are challenges in running your own business (I seriously HATE taxes and paperwork), but the rewards are immense and satisfying. Jump on in; the water’s fine!

    • Yes!! Thank you for weighing in, Jennie!

  2. ‘We’re all tapdancing like mad out on stage, hoping that no-one notices that behind the big red curtain, there’s just a little human being who’s doing their best. We’re all making it up as we go along.’

    ‘When you do what you are passionate about, you always have a sneaking feeling that one day someone is going to expose you as just a hobbyist ‘

    Others feel this way, too?! Every day, for me. So, ‘just keep going’ is the method of dealing with that fear.

    Thanks, Jennie and Cathy.

    • Absolutely!

  3. Thanks for the mention 🙂 Couldn’t agree more about that big secret! And the fear of course, though my biggest fear is having to go back ‘there’ … so yes, dancing with the fear is the only option.

    • Yes! And it *can* be done, regardless.

  4. Thank you! This is wonderful. Both my husband and I are self-employed – me for 14 years and him for 1 1/2 years – and I just told him the “big secret” and he said “Yup” and nodded his head.

    I find you brilliant and inspiring and I am so happy you are making a professional blog. I am looking forward to every new post! I live in New York and I hope to meet you one day.

    • Thank you Christine! You’re so encouraging! Who knows… I have my eye on that Charles James exhibit at the Met next summer, so I might just be in town!

  5. GODS, yes! Even after doing this for 30+ years and so many changed, both in the world of technology and personally, it’s still a tap-dance, a risk and a glory.

    If one measured it in terms of financial success, I suspect most people would see me as a failure. However, if one measures it in friends made, clients delighted and in happy memories (as well as too many costumes around the house) then I’m a raging success.

    Thank so much for posting this!

    • Hi Susi! Yes, that sounds like success to me. Although don’t forget that in the financial climate of today, keeping the wolf from the door and not going under is very much a definition of financial success. Success doesn’t have to be a Corvette, unless you want it to be so!

  6. Hi there, I have just “discovered” your site and really relate to your comments about “the big secret”. It helps to know you aren’t alone when “doing your thing” ie following your passion and also wanting to be rewarded financially. Even if all you do is cover the cost of the blooming materials !!!!

  7. Dear Cathy,
    Thank you for writing this. I’m in one of those slumps at the moment and your words have re-inspired me with my business.
    I’ve really enjoyed reading through your posts and can’t wait to see how your beautiful gown turns out 😀
    Looking forward to meeting you at the OCOC.



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